Afro-pessimism & the End of Redemption

March 30, 2016


The expanding field of Afro-pessimism theorises the structural relation between Blackness and Humanity as an irreconcilable encounter, an antagonism. One cannot know Blackness as distinct from slavery, for there is no Black temporality which is antecedent to the temporality of the Black slave. Civil society has a perverse and parasitic relation to the workings of anti-Black violence; it does not want Black land (as it does from Native Americans), or Black consent (as it does from workers), it wants something more fundamental: the confirmation of human existence.

Afro-pessimism argues that the regime of violence that subsumes Black bodies is different from the regime of violence that subsumes hyper-exploited colonial subalterns, exploited workers and other oppressed peoples. To illustrate what this means, I offer an excerpt from Simon Ortiz’s epic poem, Sand Creek, followed by my poem Law Abiding, written in the wake of Oscar Grant’s assassination. Juxtaposing these two poems will help to clarify how the regime of violence that saturates Blacks is structurally incompatible with a regime of violence where contingency, as opposed to saturation, is the operative modality; and how only one regime of violence comes with touchstones of cohesion necessary for redemption.

Sand Creek

There should be

moments of true terror

that would make men think

and that would cause women

to grab hold of children,

loving them, and saving them

for the generations

who would enjoy the rain.

   Who are

these farmers,

who are these welders,

who are these scientists,

who are those soldiers

with cold flashing brilliance

and knives.

        Who struck aside

the sacred dawn

and was not ashamed

before the natural sun and dew


they splattered blood

along their mad progress;

they claimed the earth

and stole hearts and tongues

from buffalo and men,

the skilled

butchers, aerospace engineers,

physicists they became.

The future should hold them

secret, hidden and profound.


Law Abiding

for Oscar Grant (February 27, 1986— January 1, 2009)

Don’t slant the story to fit your needs

Bullets been catching hell from niggers long as I been


Like apples ok you got your few bad bullets

But most work hard and vote yes they vote and

Got wives and sweet kids in the clip

Who cradles them when a nigger vamps who says

What to them

Mrs. Bullet I have some bad news

Then what

It’s about your husband Mr. John Fredrick Bullet


May I call you Frieda

Frieda John Fredrick passed this evening

Now Frieda be strong for unsavoury

Are the details

He died in a nigger’s spine

Crushed on impact now Frieda don’t cry

The D.A.’s on it

The judge has been briefed

And your husband’s friends are

In the streets

At first blush an exegesis might be seduced into emphasising what the poems have in common—the ravages of structural violence on two oppressed populations of colour. But another look reveals that the two poems are actually symptomatic of the fact that violence against Native Americans is not analogous to the violence by which Blacks are elaborated and positioned. The violence of ‘social death’ (that is, the violence which saturates Blackness: the violence of slavery, an ongoing pre-historical relation of violence) is fundamentally different from the violence which usurps Native American land and attempts to destroy the Indian’s cultural and territorial sovereignty. The imaginative labour of these poems is symptomatic of this difference.

In the first section of Sand Creek, the poem establishes the filial integrity of the people who are being massacred (“men [who] think…[and] women who grab hold of children, loving them, and saving them for the generations who would enjoy the rain…”) So, what we have is an intuition on the part of the poet that even though the people being killed are seen as a degraded form of humanity, their humanity is fundamentally acknowledged; and, in addition, there is a symbiosis, a kind-of cruel interdependence, between the genocided victims in the opening part of the poem and the descendants of those committing the genocide (“skilled butchers, aerospace engineers, physicists…”). In other words, the relational status of both the Indian victims and the White oppressors is established—a reciprocal dynamic is acknowledged (between degraded humanity, Indians, and exalted humanity, White settlers).

This reciprocal dynamic is based on the fact that even though one group is massacring the other, both exist within the same paradigm of recognition and incorporation. Their relation is based on a mutual recognition of sovereignty. At every scale of abstraction, body, family, community, cosmology, physical terrain, Native American sovereignty is recognised and incorporated into the consciousness of both Indians and settlers who destroyed them. The poem’s coherence is sustained by structural capacity for reciprocity between the genociders and the genocided. This structural reciprocity gives the poem a vision of hope amid the violence, manifested in a sense of spatial presence (images of land and weather) and in Ortiz’s sense that for both groups a future is possible. This means the violence the Indians suffer has a utility (confiscation and occupation of land) that makes it legible and coherent.

Law Abiding is predicated on the absence of reciprocity, utility, and contingency that Simon Ortiz’s poem takes for granted. Absence of humanity. In fact, the poem suggests that a family of murdering, inanimate bullets could have its grief and loss processed as grief and loss more readily than the family of a Black murder victim. Law Abiding doesn’t assume that the touchstones of cohesion which make filiation legible will or can be extended to Blacks. There is—in this poem—no mutual futurity into which Blacks and others will find themselves. The future belongs to the bullet. Filiation belongs to the bullet. Our caring energies will be reserved not for the Black but for the bullet. Reciprocity is not a constituent element of the struggle between beings who are socially dead and those who are socially alive—the struggle between Blacks and the world.

We need to apprehend the profound and irreconcilable difference between White supremacy (the colonial utility of the Sand Creek massacre) and anti-Blackness (the human race’s necessity for violence against Black people). The antagonism between the post-colonial subject and the settler (the Sand Creek massacre, or the Palestinian Nakba) cannot—and should not be—analogised with the violence of social death: that is the violence of slavery, which did not end in 1865, for the simple reason that slavery did not end in 1865. Slavery is a relational dynamic—not an event and certainly not a place in space like the South; just as colonialism is a relational dynamic—and that relational dynamic can continue to exist once the settler has left or ceded governmental power. And these two relations are secured by radically different structures of violence. Afro-pessimism offers an analytic lens that labour as a corrective to Humanist assumptive logic. It provides a theoretical apparatus which allows Black people to not have to be burdened by the ruse of analogy—because analogy mystifies, rather than clarifies, Black suffering. Analogy mystifies Black peoples relationship to other people of colour. Afro-pessimism labor to throw this mystification into relief—without fear of the faults and fissures that are revealed in the process.

Let me state the proposition differently: Human Life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence. There is no World without Blacks, yet there are no Blacks who are in the World. The Black is indeed a sentient being, but the constriction of Humanist thought is a constitutive disavowal of Blackness as social death; a disavowal that theorises the Black as degraded human entity: i.e., as an oppressed worker, a vanquished postcolonial subaltern, or a non-Black woman suffering under the disciplinary regime of patriarchy. The Black is not a sentient being whose narrative progression has been circumscribed by racism, colonialism, or even slavery for that matter. Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way that whereas Slaveness can be disimbricated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist as other than Slaveness.

There is a compulsive and repetitive “failure” in the poem titled Law Abiding; as though, in writing the poem, I unconsciously realised the futility of asserting something within Blackness that is prior to the devastation that defines Blackness; and the force of the repetition compulsion with which the poem roils within this devastation is vertiginous: “The D.A.’s on it/The judge has been briefed/And your husband’s friends are/In the streets.”

The poem contains no lines, no fragments which can be cobbled together with enough muscle to check this devastation, to act on it in a contrapuntal way: this is not a case of the “compulsion to repeat,” which Freud describes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whereby the repetition is “something that seems […] more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it overrides.” Law Abiding contains no political strategy or therapeutic agency through which the violence which engulfs Black flesh can be separated from the poem’s compulsion to repeat that violence.

In a ‘normal’ situation—that is to say, if Law Abiding was a poem about Human trauma and genocide—therapeutic and/or political intervention could be made to, in the case of therapy, help the poet become aware of a distinction between the violence he may indeed encounter from the state and a range of psychic alternatives to letting that violence consume his unconscious; and, in the case of politics, the vision elaborated by a movement could help the poet imagine a new day, and thus imbue state violence with a temporal finitude (“our day will come,” as the IRA used to say, and, so it did; or the Native American dream of Turtle Island restored), even if the poet didn’t live to experience that finitude. But recourse to political and therapeutic resources presumes a potential for separating skeins of unconscious compulsion (the poem’s repetitive compulsion) from the violence whose incursions are being compulsively repeated. This presumption only works for Human subjects, subjects whose relationship to violence is contingent upon their transgressions. The Slave’s relationship to violence is not contingent, it is gratuitous—it bleeds out beyond the grasp of narration.

Neither filial conflict (to be resolved, for example, through therapy), nor affilial conflict (to be resolved through politics and insurgent resistance) has purchase in a struggle for Black redemption (Edward Said offers a helpful description of filial and affilial forms of relationships in The World, the Text, and the Critic). Within the lines, “Mrs. Bullet I have some bad news…It’s about your husband Mr. John Fredrick Bullet/Or/May I call you Frieda,” the poem seems to realise that the integrity of gender is more properly the possession of an inanimate bullet than of a sentient Black being. The violence against Black people which we are witnessing on YouTube, Instagram, and TV news is conveniently gendered as violence against Black men. But there is a problem here, and it is twofold: we tend to lose sight of the fact Black women, children and LGBT people are losing their breath through the technologies of social death, just as Black hetero men are, albeit in less visible and less mediatised ways; we also get drawn into responding to the phobic anxieties of White and non-Black civil society, the threat of the Black man; and as such we offer sustenance to that juggernaut of civil society even as we try to dismantle it.

We enhance the pleasurable circulation of the modern lynching photograph (e.g., the cover of Time magazine with a still image from the video taken April 4, 2015 showing North Charleston, South Carolina policeman shooting Walter Scott in the back as he runs away) and the snuff videos (of, for example, Sandra Bland’s and Eric Garner’s police encounters) which we as Black activists have come to depend upon to show the world police violence in an effort to, ironically, redress that violence. And, since these images are almost always of Black males, they shape our (Black Humanist) agenda in profoundly gendered ways. But there is something even more problematic: we come to think of our oppression as being essentially gendered, as opposed to being gendered in important ways. This, I believe, gives us a false sense of agency; a sense that we can redress the violence of social death in ways which are analogous to the tactics of our so-called allies of colour. We want the violence against us to have a gendered integrity, in the way that it does when it is levied against the subaltern.

It is as though by cataloguing horrific acts of violence in a manner which is properly gendered, one which relegates castration and police assassination to Black men (the cul-de-sac Law Abidings dedication to Oscar Grant could lead to), and rape to Black women, our political discourse can offer us the protection of a sanctuary that we otherwise might not have. It is not, of course, sanctuary from actual rapes, castration or murder but the sanctuary of gendered recognition and incorporation which emplotment in a normal political discourse, a normal poem, provides. The tripartite narrative arc of events for such sanctuary would look like this: the event of gender (equilibrium) is being violated by the event of rape, for women, or castration or police murder for men (disequilibrium), and this turn of events is the essence of agency, through which redemption in the form of justice or healing (equilibrium-restored) completes the arc. But “if the definition of the crime of rape,” as Saidiya Hartman argues:

relies upon the capacity to give consent or exercise will, then how does one make legible the sexual violation of the enslaved when that which would constitute evidence of intentionality, and thus evidence of the crime—the state of consent or willingness of the assailed—opens up a Pandora’s box in which the subject formation and object constitution of the enslaved female are no less ponderous than the crime itself or when the legal definition of the enslaved negates the very idea of “reasonable resistance”?

We might also consider whether the wanton and indiscriminate uses of the captive body can be made sense of within the heteronormative framing of sexual violation as rape. By parceling rape out to women, castration to men, our political language offers Black Humanist scholars, Black radical insurgents, as well as the Black masses a sense that our political agency is something more than mere “borrowed institutionality” (a term borrowed in private conversation with Jared Sexton). And it “saves” the Black Humanist from a realisation that the dust-up is not between the workers and the bosses, not between settler and native, not between the queer and the straight, but between the living and the dead. If we look closely we also see that gender itself cannot be reconciled with a slave’s genealogical isolation; that for the Slave there is no surplus value to be restored to the time of labour; that no treaties between Blacks and Humans are in Washington waiting to be signed and ratified; and that, unlike the Settler in the Native American political imagination, there is no place like Europe to which Slaves can return Human beings. Only when this happens will we be able to speak of redemption and Blackness in the same breath—only then will redemption be redeemed.

By Frank B. Wilderson III

Photograph by Wasi Daniju


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